After years of Democratic dominance, Maryland’s legislative and congressional district lines could see an overhaul, due to an initiative put forth by Gov. Larry Hogan on Jan. 26. The proposal would create a constitutional amendment that places the power of drawing district lines in the hands of an independent nine-member panel. District lines are currently determined by the legislature and are redrawn after each census every 10 years.
Maryland has been deemed by many experts as a state of with some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country — something Hogan hopes to reverse in a state where his party is outnumbered seven-to-one in its House delegation in Congress.
“For too long, fair elections and a healthy, strong and competitive two-party system have been nearly impossible in our state,” Hogan said in a news release. “This is about recognizing a problem and choosing to do the right thing to solve it.”
Congressional districts are subject to a variety of federal standards such as requirements of being contiguous, compact and proportional. Yet, because states are given the power of drawing district lines, the criteria are not always adhered to. To combat this, states such as Indiana, where Republicans control roughly 80 percent of the legislature, have created study commissions to take up the issue.
We have evolved into a system where politicians choose voters on redistricting day before voters choose politicians on election day.
— State Sen. Jamie Raskin
Hogan began the process in August 2015 by appointing seven members to a nonpartisan reform committee to go along with two Democratic and two Republican members of the legislature.
Michael Goff, a member of the committee, has lived in Maryland since 1977 and said despite being a registered Democrat, he feels that gerrymandering hurts both parties since it makes elections less competitive.
“The real problem in my opinion is that the districts are so lopsided in one district or the other,” he said. “Most people don’t care about one party or the other, they care about their congressman being responsible and accountable.”
Goff is the CEO of the research group Northeast-Midwest Institute and also teaches political science at George Washington University. He noted that gerrymandering has plagued states around the country, leading to an overwhelming advantage for incumbents in Congress who run for re-election.
“It’s a scandal that the United States Congress presents itself as representing the people, and it’s not,” he said. “That’s why presidents work to get people what they want and Congress is holding it up.”
Goff added that he thinks Maryland’s legislature cares more about “preserving their advantage in D.C.” than representing the people, and that can be seen in the geographic boundaries of some districts.
“Some of these districts are so oddly drawn that you’d have a district that stretches all the way from Baltimore to the hinterlands, and people in the hinterlands wanted a district that was more agricultural,” he said.
The governor’s wish to level the political playing field in Maryland is being supported by some Democrats in the legislature as well as Republicans, including District 20 state Sen. Jamie Raskin, who represents parts of Montgomery County and is running for Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s seat in Congress. Raskin said he is pleased with the governor’s initiative and thinks the commission will be a “small step forward.”
“A seven-to-one split is definitely not a proportional allocation to the seats in our state,” he said. “The reason it’s been very tough to have progress on redistricting is because the party in control in the legislature has the power to make reforms but it has no incentives.”
Raskin thinks that gerrymandering has been the main force behind the “lynchpin of Republican control,” in Congress.
“We have evolved into a system where politicians choose voters on redistricting day before voters choose politicians on election day,” he said.
Raskin has a redistricting plan of his own that would combine the forces of Maryland and Virginia residents into a similar nonpartisan commission, known as the Potomac Compact. His rationale is that the two neighboring states have state legislatures and governors of differing parties (Virginia has a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature).
“The people of Maryland want to engage in redistricting reform and to rise above the partisanship, but it’s very hard to do it alone,” he said. “But if we do it with our partners in Virginia, we’ve got our head in the game.”
Raskin, who also teaches constitutional law at American University, said that states often enter into compacts with each other in order to conduct interstate commerce, such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) that falls under the jurisdiction of both states along with Washington, D.C. He has written about the subject previously in The Baltimore Sun and Yale Law Review and plans to introduce legislation in the coming week.
The concept of redistricting has also been supported by the Baltimore Jewish Council in the past, including the plan that followed the 1990 census.
“It was answering questions about the Jewish community,” executive director Art Abramson said. “Our goal was to make sure the Jewish community would remain well-represented.”
Abramson added that this goal will be the same for any upcoming redistricting plan, although the BJC cannot take a position with either party due to their status as a 501(c)(3) organization.